Though it is as Mozart's librettist that we know his name today, perhaps Da Ponte himself might have preferred to be remembered as the indefatigable pioneer who gave Americans an awareness of the literary and musical heritage of his native land, opening their eyes to splendors they had never seen or dreamt of before. -Sheila Hodges

The librettist for three of Mozart's operas (Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte) was born in 1749, the son of a Jewish tanner, and was named Emanuele Conegliano. America was a British colony, and George Washington was still a schoolboy. When the boy was five, his mother died and the children ran wild; by the age of eleven he could scarcely read or write. When he was fourteen, his father, then forty, fell in love with a girl of sixteen. Since she was Roman Catholic, he had to convert in order to be able to marry her. His three sons were baptized with him. Emanuele took the name of their sponsor, Bishop Lorenzo Da Ponte, and the boys were taken into the Bishop's seminary. Although at the time he could barely write a decent Italian sentence, Lorenzo soon became fluent in Latin. Seminaries were to train young men for the priesthood. Latin was needed by priests, so seminaries taught Latin almost exclusively. Luckily one of the masters also encouraged the boys to study Dante, Petrarch and other Italian poets. This was the start for Da Ponte of a life-long love of Italian literature. To buy books he stole leather from his father and sold it to a shoemaker. When he was found out, instead of punishing him, the Bishop gave him money to buy more books. Soon, however, he had to sell his precious volumes and much of his clothing to help support his family. This was to become a recurring theme in his life, buying the books he loved, then selling them to pay his debts. At the age of twenty-one, Da Ponte was made a teacher at another seminary, and at twenty-four he was ordained as a priest. Almost immediately he set off for Venice. At the time, Venice had seven opera houses, and music was everywhere. It was also one of the most dissolute cities of Europe, and gambling was a second passion. The motto of the Venetians was, "A little Mass in the morning, a little gamble in the afternoon, and a little lady in the evening." The carnival season lasted six months, during which all the people wore masks, even the priests.

Da Ponte wrote some poems titled "Whether man is happier in an organized society or in a simple state of nature." They caused him to be denounced to the Venetian Senate, and his subsequent trial made a great sensation. The poems were confiscated, he was publicly denounced, dismissed from his teaching position, and he was forbidden to teach anywhere in the Venetian Republic. Da Ponte stayed on and had several affairs, including one with a married woman who bore him several children. As was the custom with illegitimate children, they were turned over to a foundling hospital. Through all of this he continued to say Mass regularly, and no one seemed to object. (At the time, many men became priests and women became nuns, not because they felt called by God, but for educational and financial reasons.) One of Da Ponte's friends in Venice was Giovanni Casanova, whose name was to become, along with "Don Juan," a synonym for a libertine. While Don Giovanni was based on other sources, Da Ponte's life and that of his friend certainly enabled him to give verisimilitude to the opera's title character. Finally, his indiscretions caught up with him, and he was banished from Venice for fifteen years. If found there, he was to be imprisoned in a dungeon without light for seven years.

Two years and many adventures later, Da Ponte found himself in Vienna with a letter of introduction to Salieri, the Director of the Italian Opera and the Court Composer. At the time, Joseph II, the brother of Marie Antoinette, was the Holy Roman Emperor, and Vienna was the cultural capital of the world. Joseph introduced religious toleration and partially emancipated the Jews.

When Da Ponte met the Emperor, Joseph asked him how many plays he had written. He answered, "None, Sire," and Joseph replied, "Good. Good! We shall have a virgin muse." Da Ponte met the eighty-four year old Metastasio, the "Caesarean Poet to the Roman Emperor" -- the trappings of the Holy Roman Empire were still taken very seriously -- and hoped to take his place when he died. Instead, Joseph appointed him to the post of Poet to the Italian Theatre where, for a generous salary plus royalties, he was to write new libretti and adapt those of others. The first composer for whom he was asked to write was Salieri. The fledgling librettist read 20 works by others to learn how to write opera texts.

Unfortunately he developed abscesses in his mouth, and it was recommended that he treat them with nitric acid! The abscesses disappeared, but so did his teeth. Soon he was completely toothless.

Usually Mozart detested rhymes in libretti; words should suit the music, not be forced into a rhyme. Yet Da Ponte was able to write in rhymes which fit naturally into Mozart's music. Even libretti adapted from other sources were his own. He did not copy, but rewrote the text completely, using his skill to turn prose into verse suitable for singing. However, other than those written for Mozart, the many libretti for which Da Ponte was responsible have largely been forgotten.

Never shy about his own abilities, in his memoirs, Da Ponte took full credit for Mozart's success:

Though gifted with talents superior perhaps, to those of any other composer in the world, past, present or future, Mozart has, thanks to the intrigues of his rivals, never been able to exercise his divine genius in Vienna, and was living there unknown and obscure, like a precious jewel buried in the bowels of the earth and hiding the refulgent excellence of its splendors. I can never remember without exultation and complacency, that it was to my perseverance and firmness alone that Europe and the world in great part owe the exquisite vocal compositions of the admirable genius.

When Joseph died, Da Ponte fell out of favor with the new Emperor, Leopold, and quarreled with Salieri. Again he had to flee, ending up in Trieste. There he met a well-to-do German, John Krahl, and became friends with his daughter. When the man to whom she was then engaged asked about her dowry, the enraged Krahl forbade the marriage. Instead he offered her to Da Ponte, and they were joined "with social ceremonies and formalities." There is no evidence they were legally married at the time. He was still a Catholic priest! The "newlyweds" set off for Paris with a letter of introduction to Marie Antoinette; hearing of the capture of King Louis XVI and his Queen, they changed their course for London.

When they arrived in London, the Da Pontes' only possessions were six louis, a gold watch and a ring. Since the Anglican Church permits priests to marry, they probably had a legal wedding ceremony. For years, their fortunes went through cycles of good and bad. Finally his wife and four children went to America to visit her family. They were supposed to stay a year, but da Ponte was afraid he would never see them again. Soon he was once more forced to flee creditors, and he sailed to America himself. Although the voyage took only 57 days, it was so miserable that he remembered it as lasting 86. Among his luggage was a box of violin strings, a number of Italian classics, several copies of Virgil, and about $40 in cash. He was to spend the last 33 years of his life in the United States.

After a time in New Jersey, the Da Pontes moved to New York. One day in a bookstore, Clement Clarke Moore, best known as the author of The Night Before Christmas, overheard Da Ponte asking for Italian books. Their conversation led to Moore's helping him obtain well-to-do pupils, including his own son, for Italian lessons. He remained Da Ponte's supporter and friend all his life. Da Ponte founded the Manhattan Academy for Young Gentlemen. There boys could learn Italian, French, Latin, writing and ciphering, grammar and geography. His wife taught French, Italian, the art of making artificial flowers, drawing and music at the accompanying Manhattan Academy for Young Ladies.

Later Da Ponte was induced to move to Pennsylvania where he tried his hand in turn as a grocer, distiller, milliner, seller of medicines and teamster, but recurring financial problems convinced him to return to New York. He imported Italian books, sometimes selling them door-to-door, opened a bookstore and became an American citizen. Appointed Professor of Italian without pay at what was then Columbia College, he was supposed to collect what fees he could from his students. He was the first to teach Dante in America, took in boarders and introduced them to the joys of Italian cuisine. In his memoirs, he claimed to have imported 26,000 volumes and taught Italian to 2,500 people. His contributions of books were the foundations of the Italian collections of Columbia University, The Library of Congress, and The New York Public Library.

Da Ponte's later years were highlighted by a visit to New York by Manuel Garcia's Italian opera troupe, bringing with him the first New World Italian performance of Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia. This was such an unusual occurrence that people wrote to the newspapers asking how they should dress and behave! Da Ponte introduced himself to Garcia and soon had the great joy of seeing his opera Don Giovanni once more. He was also involved in the establishment of the Italian Opera House in New York, built in European style.

Da Ponte died in August 1838, at the age of 89. He was still striking-looking in spite of his lost teeth. Like his collaborator, Mozart, he was buried in an unmarked grave, now lost. For his entire life he had been a gifted teacher, loved by his students. He had sowed wild oats as a young man, but thereafter lived a conventional, if rather colorful, life. He was faithful to his wife and a loving father to his children who all married into New York's best families.

It would grieve Da Ponte that so little is remembered of his immense contribution to American culture during the 33 years he spent in the United States. Born in the age of Voltaire, he died when Karl Marx was 20. He had lived in the glittering last years of the Venetian Republic, the brilliance of Vienna under Joseph II and the London of George III, and was forced to leave them all, penniless and under a cloud. In each case his indomitable spirit enabled him to build a new life. He was to write: "How wonderful it is then [that the three operas of Mozart and Da Ponte] are the only ones which, with every day that passes, are more highly esteemed and valued in every theatre in Europe: the only ones which can cry out in triumph, 'WE ARE ETERNAL'."

Livingston, Arthur, ed.: Memoirs of Lorenzo Da Ponte. 1959, Orion Press, New York, 1959.

Fitzlyon, April: The Libertine Librettist. London, JohnCalder,1955.

Hodges, Sheila: Lorenzo Da Ponte: The Life and Times of Mozart's Librettist. Granada, 1985


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